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US defense secretary opposes Senate efforts to halt F-35 transfer to Turkey

US Secretary for Defense Jim Mattis speaks during a media conference after a meeting of NATO defense ministers at NATO headquarters in Brussels on June 8, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Virginia Mayo

US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is opposed to congressional attempts to block Turkey’s receipt of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, CNN reported on Thursday, saying he had actively been engaging with members of Congress behind the scenes in an attempt to ensure efforts to halt delivery of the jets were removed from the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) as well as from the Senate appropriation bill for the State Department and foreign operations.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs has added an amendment to the State Department and foreign operations bill that would prohibit the use of State Department, foreign operations and related program funds from being used “to transfer, or to facilitate the transfer of, F-35 aircraft to Turkey,” unless the secretary of state certifies that Turkey will not purchase a Russian-made S-400 anti-aircraft missile system.

“The concern is that the F-35 is the most advanced aircraft, the most advanced NATO aircraft, and if Turkey goes forward with the acquisition of the S-400, it will allow the Russians to collect information on how to best attack an F-35 fighter,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat and one of the amendment’s co-sponsors, told CNN.

“It’s totally nuts to hand the Russian the keys to the mission capabilities of the F-35 and allow them to try to detect and then exploit any vulnerabilities,” he added.

Earlier in the week the Senate passed a bill that could be used to block or slow the transfer of F-35 fighter jets to NATO ally Turkey until the Pentagon devises a plan to remove Ankara from the JSF program.

Turkey has long been a participant in the development of the F-35 program and was seeking to buy about 100 of the stealth jets. However, various legislators have cited a number of concerns with Turkey, including its plans to buy the advanced Russian air defense system, warming ties with Moscow and the arrest of US citizens and consulate staff, including American pastor Andrew Brunson, standing trial in Turkey on terrorism charges in the wake of a 2016 coup attempt that Ankara believes was orchestrated by Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen, who resides in the US.

Their efforts have drawn criticism from Turkey and resistance from the Pentagon, but a US defense official told CNN that the concern is that the Russian-made S-400, particularly if it’s plugged into Turkey’s integrated air defense system, could gather technical data on the F-35’s capabilities and that critical information could be passed to Moscow either intentionally or unintentionally through a back door in the Russian designed system.

The transfer of the first aircraft to Turkey took place on Thursday during a ceremony at Fort Worth, Texas. The planes were then flown to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona where pilot training for the F-35 variant takes place, for possibly up to two years.

Congressional efforts to block the sale to Turkey over its purchase of the S-400 have drawn criticism from Turkish officials.

“We have been in that program, including some joint production, production of the parts of F-35s in Turkey,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu told PBS earlier this month.

“Turkey has been paying the installments on time, on due time. And Turkey has met all the requirements, but you cannot cancel this because of the S-400s that we are buying. It is a totally different issue,” he added, saying Turkey should not be forced to choose between the US and Russia.

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